NEW YORK — A former member of a cult-like group called Nxivm offered the first graphic details Tuesday about how women were manipulated into becoming “slaves” who provided sexual favors to its leader.
The testimony of the former member, a 32-year-old British woman identified only as “Sylvie,” came on the first day of the racketeering and sex trafficking trial of Keith Raniere, Nxivm’s former leader, in federal court in Brooklyn. It gave jurors a glimpse into a group in which prosecutors say women were branded and humiliated.
Sylvie said she had been involved with Nxivm for about 13 years, taking self-help courses, when she was invited to join a secretive sorority within the organization.
But to join, Sylvie said, she first had to prove her dedication by providing “collateral” to the woman who had invited her, Monica Duran, in the form of nude photographs and a stamped letter to her parents saying she was a prostitute.
“Now I was Monica’s slave and she was my master and the collateral was in place to keep that going,” Sylvie said. She said she was given “assignments” that she was expected to fulfill unquestioningly.
Soon, Sylvie said, Duran ordered her to seduce Raniere, who demanded that Sylvie send him explicit photographs of herself. At one point, Sylvie said, she tried to stop sending the photos, but she was informed she needed Raniere’s permission.
“He said I could stop sending the pictures and the next thing would be in person,” Sylvie said.
Raniere, 58, has been indicted on charges of racketeering conspiracy, identity theft, extortion, forced labor, money laundering, wire fraud and sex trafficking.
In recent weeks, five women who were charged as Raniere’s co-defendants have pleaded guilty to various federal charges, leaving Raniere to stand trial alone.
For years, Raniere described himself to his followers as the smartest and most ethical person in the world. He compared himself to Einstein and Gandhi, and boasted that he had earned multiple academic degrees.
But during opening statements a federal prosecutor, Tanya Hajjar, told jurors that the image he projected as the guru of Nxivm was a charade.
“The defendant said he was a mentor, but he was a predator,” Hajjar said.
Raniere co-founded Nxivm (pronounced Nex-eum) in Halfmoon and Clifton Park in the 1990s and sold it as a self-help organization that offered a path to greater fulfillment. There were workshops, like “Executive Success Programs,” that promised participants a more meaningful life.
But prosecutors have called it a criminal enterprise involved in identity theft, extortion and sex trafficking.
The real purpose of the group was to exert power over women, Hajjar said. Some of Raniere’s former followers were branded with his initials and pressured into handing over the deeds to their homes, their bank account information and their “deepest, darkest secrets,” which were used as leverage to control them.
Many of these followers also had sex with Raniere, including an underage girl from Mexico named Camilla, Hajjar said. Raniere kept sexually explicit photos of the girl and several other women on his computer, according to prosecutors.
Raniere called the girl “Virgin Camilla,” Hajjar said, and began having sex with her when she was 15. (He could be charged with statutory rape under New York law and a criminal act under federal law, but he has not been indicted on either charge.)
Hajjar said the government would draw upon pictures, email messages and video recordings to make its case against Raniere, as well as testimony from former Nxivm members who had committed “serious crimes” with him.
“This was organized crime, and Keith Raniere was the crime boss in the community,” Hajjar said. “He was untouchable.”
Judge Nicholas Garaufis has ordered that the names of jurors be kept secret to protect them from intense news media attention. And before the opening arguments, prosecutors said they would make public only the first names of witnesses who claim to have been victimized by Raniere.
Raniere’s lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, demanded last week a mistrial be declared on the ground that identifying people by first names gives the impression to jurors that they are victims. Garaufis ordered prosecutors to give him their thoughts on a new process for referring to the witnesses by Wednesday morning.
In his opening statement, Agnifilo told jurors that his client tried to help his followers reach their personal goals and had never forced them to do anything against their will.
He warned jurors they might see a video of a woman being branded. “See if the women seemed forced or if they are doing it because they want to do it,” Agnifilo said.
Nxivm attracted wealthy supporters, including Clare Bronfman, the youngest daughter of Edgar Bronfman, the deceased chairman of Seagram Co.
An actress, Allison Mack, known for her role in the television series “Smallville,” also became one of Raniere’s acolytes. Mack recruited women into the secret society within the group in which women were branded and compelled to have sex with Raniere, prosecutors have said.
But Agnifilo argued that the promises Raniere made to Nxivm members were genuine and suggested that it was the government’s case that should be thought of as a charade.